Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Timgad and the Study of Australian History

Photo: Ruins, Roman city of Timgad, modern Algeria

Sunday night I watched the continuing story of the Roman Empire on SBS. This program focused in part on the remarkable ruins of the Roman city of Timgad in North Africa. It also discussed at some length the way the Romans achieved social integration in a vast and ethnically diverse empire.

I have done a fair bit of Roman history. Three years ancient history at school, half of which was about Rome. Then another slab in the History 1 course at New England. I also did three years Latin at school plus one year elementary Latin at University as an extra, courses that I fear left little impact.

The SBS program reminded me how little I really knew about the Roman Empire. The courses had a strong military and political focus and were very City of Rome centric. We actually learned little about life and politics elsewhere in that vast, sprawling imperial domain. I in fact learned more here from novels.

I was musing about this in the context of an earlier post from Neil (Ninglun) about Julie Bishop and the attempt to establish a national Australian history curriculum. I thought about commenting when I first read that post, but decided not to say anything because my views are, perhaps, simply too far to left field to be of any relevance to the debate.

In my last post I talked about my early frustrations and boredom with Australian history, about the failures to recognise regional variations in Australia. I later concluded that this was due to a centralised, rigid, education system that imposed a uniform curriculum across NSW. There was very little room to localise.

Australian history, or the study of, has a lot to answer for in my case. Once I started work in Canberra, my past interests fell away to some degree in the excitement of a new world. I was always conscious of my past, of the knowledge that Australia was not a simple uniform whole, and indeed this did and does temper my policy advice. But the past became just that, the past.

My postgraduate studies in Australian history re-ignited my interest, because they became to a major degree an exploration of the world from which I had come. Investigating that world meant pulling out and looking again at things that I had believed but largely put aside, at the forces that had formed the world I knew.

My benighted PhD was meant to be a political biography of my grandfather focused on his political and public life. It would have been very easy to have written a conventional political biography. Certainly this would have greatly enhanced my chances of steering through the academic minefields that can be associated with this type of writing.

Instead, as I explored David Drummond's life through the prism set by my own life and experiences, I came to the conclusion that his public life could only be properly understood if set in a regional context.

The hardships and failures of his early life that saw him become a ward of the state created a need for belonging and a desire to succeed. His own lack of education, his experiences as a farm labourer and then as a farm manager, his role in rural politics, created a passionate interest in education in general and country education in particular. But beyond all else, it was his involvement in the cause of Northern New South Wales that gave form and structure to his life.

Central to this, I think, was the fact that he there found acceptance and success, a cause.

So instead of writing a conventional political biography, the thesis became in large part the story of an area and of the interaction between a man and the area that he had adopted as his own.

I also became very aware as I looked at the interactions among the various regional movements of the historical and cultural differences between various parts of Australia. These may not be as spectacular and grand as in some other places, more often they are tempered nuances. But they are still important.

Why, for example, are voting patterns so different between southern and northern NSW? The answer here goes back in large part to early ethnic differences in chain migration, Irish in the south, Scots in the north.

Again, why is the history, focus and role of the cultural elites so different between Sydney and Melbourne?

I became interested in this one in part because of my interest in Australian cultural history, but also because there were a number of threads that bore upon what I was writing about. One of these was the differences in power structures between the two cities, the fact that the Sydney power elites were never able to establish the same dominance as their Melbourne equivalents.

Many years ago I read a book on the growth of American thought. It is a long time and I do not have exact details, but I think that it was Merle Curti's 1944 magnum opus. I found it a fascinating book, in part because the writer brought out the nature of the regional differences within the US. I wondered at the time why no-one had written an equivalent for Australia.

Linking this back to Julie Bishop.

If we are to have a national history curriculum in Australia, then it follows that that curriculum will almost necessarily focus on what are perceived to be key national trends, events or narrative. In other words, it will select the things that are perceived to be both common and important. It is highly unlikely to deal with the things that I am most interested in in terms of either topic or broader focus of study.

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